I love science fiction.
Quite a lot of it is puerile drivel, vapid and shallow, but it is a wonderful vehicle to enjoy story telling.
Science fiction provides a safe environment – one we “know” is pure pretend – to explore the deepest, strongest, and most important themes. We can stare at the darkest part of ourselves and learn, because where we’re sitting is make-believe. Rather than feeling threatened, we can enjoy the pretending and the lesson soaks in anyway. One of my favorite sites, collecting and critiquing a vast array of science fiction stories, is Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.
My favorite science fiction examines the Big Ideas, and retells them in ways that aren’t quite one-to-one allegories. Babylon AD, for example, is a retelling of the New Testament set in a near-future dystopia. The hero’s journey takes him from the darkness of a raw, survival-only existence to serenity; it’s the New Testament story but from Joseph’s point of view – if Joseph had been trained in a future Special Forces squad. Another is RoboCop. In the Criterion Collection Special Edition, Paul Verhoeven is interviewed about his inspiration. “Jesus came with a sword, he says, in the New Testament. I wanted to see what would happen if Jesus came now – wouldn’t he come with a gun?” Officer Murphy goes through a tremendous journey of change, and ends up saving the world of the future through the spike in his hand.
In Gene Wolfe‘s Book of the New Sun series, the story of the New Testament is told through the mind and eyes of one of the last of the Torturers, the men who carry out the punitive sentences handed down by community courts on an Earth a million years into the future. Severian begins his journey as an amoral being, not much concerned with questions of right and wrong, or even hope – and transforms into a creature who gives himself entirely for the saving of his world. The Space Trilogy by C. S. Lewis explores the themes expressed throughout the Bible, through the journeys of the heroes to our neighboring planets, with an exploration into the idea of how things would be different on a planet if Adam and Eve refused to take the fruit from Lucifer.
Roger Zelazny explores similar themes but using sources of Hindu or ancient Chinese theology through Lord of Light and Lord Demon. I think the science fiction stories I enjoy the most are those dealing with journeys of redemption and the aftermath – I like to watch the transformation of someone from a person we wouldn’t necessarily care to be around or even despise, into someone we would really, really like to know – Alfred Bester‘s The Stars My Destination follows an utterly heartless thug as he travels through a crucible of experience, growing into a person who can both forgive and gently save others. Other story tellers I enjoy include Gene Roddenberry, Brandon Sanderson, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., and the particular fusion of Islam and Christianity in Frank Herbert’s Dune series.
By telling stories in fantastical settings, authors entertain us and enliven our sense of wonder. In letting down our guard as we fall into the wonderment, we also allow a bit of change to happen within us. Science fiction opens an entertaining door into how the universe might look, as we take the journey to become the creatures we were created to be.